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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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A depiction of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.


Michael Curtiz


Norman Reilly Raine (screen play), Æneas MacKenzie (screen play) (as Aeneas MacKenzie) | 1 more credit »
Nominated for 5 Oscars. See more awards »



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Complete credited cast:
Bette Davis ... Queen Elizabeth
Errol Flynn ... Earl of Essex
Olivia de Havilland ... Lady Penelope Gray
Donald Crisp ... Francis Bacon
Alan Hale ... Earl of Tyrone
Vincent Price ... Sir Walter Raleigh
Henry Stephenson ... Lord Burghley
Henry Daniell ... Sir Robert Cecil
James Stephenson ... Sir Thomas Egerton
Nanette Fabray ... Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (as Nanette Fabares)
Ralph Forbes ... Lord Knollys
Robert Warwick ... Lord Mountjoy
Leo G. Carroll ... Sir Edward Coke


This period drama frames the tumultuous affair between Queen Elizabeth I and the man who would be King of England, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Ever the victor on the battlefield, Devereux returns to London after defeating Spanish forces at Cadiz. Middle-aged Elizabeth, so attracted to the younger Devereux but fearful of his influence and popularity, sends him on a new mission: a doomed campaign to Ireland. When he and his troops return in defeat, Devereux demands to share the throne with the heir-less queen, and Elizabeth, at first, intends to marry. Ultimately sensing the marriage would prove disastrous for England, Elizabeth sets in motion a merciless plan to protect her people and preserve her throne. Written by IMDb Editors

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Elizabeth I's love for the Earl of Essex threatens to destroy her kingdom.


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Release Date:

11 November 1939 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Elizabeth and Essex See more »


Box Office


$1,075,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Warner Bros. See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Vitaphone)


Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


To give the illusion of baldness, Bette Davis shaved her head two inches in front to show a high forehead under Elizabeth's red wigs. See more »


Details of some historical characters and events have been changed to fit the dramatic narrative. See more »


Queen Elizabeth I: And when he takes you in his arms again, thank heaven you are not a queen.
Mistress Margaret Radcliffe: But I thought to be a queen...
Queen Elizabeth I: To be a Queen is to be less than human, to put pride before desire, to search Men's hearts for tenderness, and find only ambition. To cry out in the dark for one unselfish voice, to hear only the dry rustle of papers of state. To turn to one's beloved with stars for eyes and have him see behind me only the shadow of the executioner's block. A queen has no hour for love, time presses, and ...
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Featured in Hollywood and the Stars: The Swashbucklers (1964) See more »


The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Come Live With Me and Be My Love)
(posthumous 1599) (uncredited)
:yrics by Christopher Marlowe
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Played on piano by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and sung by Nanette Fabray
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User Reviews

Davis and Flynn, Mismatched Lovers in Anderson Play...
7 October 2003 | by cariartSee all my reviews

Until her death, at 81, in 1989, screen legend Bette Davis would express a combination of bitterness and disappointment over the Maxwell Anderson play that came to the screen as THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. She had lobbied hard for the WB to buy the rights, certain that, at age 31, it would be her greatest acting triumph to date (quite a prediction from an someone who'd already won two 'Best Actress' Oscars). ELIZABETH THE QUEEN was a Broadway sensation, but the studio was reluctant to gamble on it; the few Hollywood attempts to do royal epics had failed (MARY OF Scotland, with Katharine Hepburn in the lead, and John Ford directing, had been a major flop, and helped the actress gain the title 'Box Office Poison'), and it appeared that only the British could make this kind of film work.

Nevertheless, when your biggest (and most headstrong) female star wants something, you GET it for her, so the rights were purchased, and ELIZABETH THE QUEEN was announced as 'prestige' production to be filmed with Davis as the lead. Then the problems began...

For the pivotal role of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the ambitious lover who nearly costs Elizabeth her crown, Davis wanted Laurence Olivier, who, at 32, had already established himself as one of the finest actors on two continents. Darkly handsome, and renowned for his interpretations of Shakespeare, the future British lord had created quite a stir in Hollywood, aided by the fact that his lover was Vivien Leigh, who'd won the coveted role of 'Scarlet O'Hara' in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Unfortunately, Olivier was committed to play Heathcliff in the Goldwyn production of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The search for a British actor of equal stature proved fruitless; Robert Donat was filming GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (for which he'd win an Oscar), Leslie Howard was finishing GONE WITH THE WIND and in preproduction for INTERMEZZO, Ronald Colman was involved in THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, even Cary Grant was busy, shooting GUNGA DIN... ...But Errol Flynn, Warner's biggest male star, WAS available...

Davis had worked with Flynn a year earlier, in THE SISTERS, and it had NOT been a pleasant experience. Prone to taking things as easy as possible, and playing practical jokes on his co-stars, he took advantage of his classic good looks and natural charm to 'get away' with not knowing his lines and frequent tardiness (he was a world-class carouser and womanizer, away from the camera). Davis, who was always punctual, knew everybody's dialog, and could be quite temperamental, considered him unprofessional, and crude.

But Flynn had become a major star, and the WB, trying to insure ELIZABETH would be a success, overrode Davis' objections, and cast him as Essex...and Flynn immediately demanded a title change. He felt he was as big a star as Davis, and that the film title should reflect his status; so ELIZABETH THE QUEEN first became THE KNIGHT AND THE LADY, which Davis vehemently refused to accept, then THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, which she disliked, as well, but had to accept.

The filming was an unhappy affair. Both Flynn and Davis had difficulties with director Michael Curtiz, resulting in Davis' performance being 'over-the-top', and Flynn's so underplayed that he failed to grasp Essex's character, often appearing shallow. In one scene, Davis was supposed to slap Flynn; rather than do a 'staged' one, which would barely touch him, she hit him full force, wearing a heavy ring, which brought tears to his eyes, and broke, momentarily, his composure (the moment is in the completed film; watch, quickly, and you can see Flynn 'lose his cool'!) Flynn responded by a series of escalating practical jokes, with Davis threatening to kill him. Even co-star Olivia De Havilland was unhappy, having just completed GONE WITH THE WIND, and back at Warners in a decidedly secondary role. That the film 'worked' at all was a testament to Davis' perseverance, the glorious Technicolor-filmed sets, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's spectacular musical score.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX garnered mixed reviews for Davis (although she would be praised for how convincingly she portrayed the much older woman), and terrible ones, for Flynn (which would be used against him, in future, whenever he asked for more substantial roles).

Davis would again play Elizabeth, 16 years later, in the British production, THE VIRGIN QUEEN, but she never lost her resentment over the failure of the earlier film.

In a year of 'classics', THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX would be an exception!

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